Audit finds fault with Louisiana child abuser registry

By: - October 31, 2022 6:29 pm
child facing a corner

Compared with most other states, Louisiana requires less evidence to place someone’s name on a state registry of child abuse perpetrators, according to a report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor. (Canva image)

Compared with most other states, Louisiana requires less evidence to place someone’s name on a state registry of alleged child abusers, according to a report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.

The State Central Registry is a list of names of child abusers that the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) uses as a screening tool for anyone applying to foster or work with children. Federal legislation in 2014 and 2018 required all states to perform registry “clearances” or checks on staff of child care providers and institutions, potentially impacting the employment of individuals on state registries.

In a survey of 17 states, the audit found only Louisiana and three others use the lowest standard of evidence — a reasonable cause to believe — to determine whether an allegation of child abuse or neglect is valid. The 14 other states surveyed use a preponderance of the evidence standard — meaning more than a 50% likelihood — to substantiate an allegation.

The audit cites a 2017 study that concluded states with a higher evidence standard reported “an increase in the delivery of services to families, a possible decrease in foster care placements, and was not associated with an increase in total child fatalities.”

According to DCFS, requiring a lower level of evidence than a criminal conviction to support valid findings enables the registry to provide information not recorded by the criminal justice system that helps keep children safe.

More than two-thirds of the child welfare investigations in Louisiana result in no valid findings of abuse or neglect. DCFS has investigated 51,303 cases from 2019 to 2021 and substantiated only about 28.5% of them.

According to Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, most child welfare cases are cases of poverty confused with neglect.

“When horrible things happen to children ‘known to the system,’ it’s almost always because agencies like DCFS are overwhelmed,” Wexler said in an email. “But what’s overwhelming them are false reports, trivial cases and cases in which poverty is confused with neglect.”

Of the cases substantiated, 1,501 were appealed, and 426 were overturned on appeal, according to the audit, which also called attention to possible economic disenfranchisement in the appeals process. Neither Louisiana nor any of the surveyed states provide legal counsel to individuals who cannot afford to hire an attorney for the appeal proceedings.

“This can place individuals who cannot afford an attorney at a disadvantage when seeking to have a valid finding overturned,” the audit stated.

The audit also points out that DCFS may be failing to properly notify suspected perpetrators of their appeal rights. The agency does not use certified mail to notify alleged perpetrators their names will be placed on the registry and that they have 20 days to appeal the decision. As a result, some individuals may never receive the letter and miss their chance to appeal.

Louisiana will allow individuals to file an appeal after the deadline has passed if they can show they never received the notification letter.

According to DCFS, sending notices by certified mail could result in suspected perpetrators intentionally avoiding the delivery of the notices so that their appeal rights would never be exhausted and they could never be added to the registry. The audit referred to several methods other states have used to address that concern such as using a process server or allowing for hand delivery.

Among positive findings in the audit, Louisiana is ahead of most other states with some features that strengthen due process protections.

In 11 of the surveyed states, the appeals proceedings are conducted by the same state agency that conducted the initial child abuse investigation. Louisiana is among those where a third-party agency, the Division of Administrative Law, handles the appeals, thus providing “greater assurance of an impartial decision-maker,” the audit said.

Also, DCFS adds suspected perpetrators to the registry only after their appeal rights are exhausted or an appeal is not requested, the audit noted.

“The important thing to understand here is who is hurt most when the registry doesn’t have sufficient due process protections. Once again, it’s children,” Wexler said. “A listing on the central registry bars people from jobs that are often the first rung on the ladder for poor people trying to work their way out of poverty. So a needless listing in a registry drives families deeper into the poverty that may have led to the listing on the registry in the first place. And of course a false listing on the registry makes it more likely that if the family ever is falsely accused again, the children will be taken away.” 

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Among his recognitions are McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association. Muller is an alumnus of Jesuit High School and the University of New Orleans and is a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Louisiana with his wife and two sons.

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